PERFORMANCE OF MARCH 26, 1974 at Keystone Korner, San Francisco
Pharoah Sanders / tenor saxophone, percussion, Leon Thomas /vocals, percussion, Joseph Bonner / piano, percussion, Juney Booth / bass, percussion, Michael “Thabo” Carvin / drums, Babatunde / conga drums, and an additional percussionist added for second set.
Pharoah Sanders brought his partly interesting and increasingly predictable music to San Francisco’s Keystone Korner for a two-week engagement in late March and early April. The impression conveyed on opening night – more than ever before – was that Pharoah’s music is at a real aesthetic crossroads. His music must either expand its source of energy and direction or cease to be a real aesthetic force at all.
How has Pharoah’s music arrived at this point? Since even before the death of John Coltrane (see Tauhid, Impulse A-9138, recorded late 1966), it was clear that Pharoah’s musical concerns were slightly different than those of John himself. On Tauhid and subsequent recordings, what Pharoah did was to take an aspect of the music which, together with John Coltrane, he helped to develop and to make that aspect the central concern of his music. Like Coltrane, who (in the late ’50s) found it necessary to proceed all the way down the clearly dead-end road of bop, creating as he did so an entirely different perspective on what had previously been perceived as “ordinary,” so Pharoah has proceeded down his own particular road, hoping as he has worked his way to the extreme of his explorations to have a similar effect.
Of course, Pharoah has long abandoned the depth of his work of the Coltrane period. As one example among many, one need only listen to his solo on “Naima” (Live At The Village Vanguard Again! Impulse A-9124) to realize how much depth, range of expression, and originality of phrasing Pharoah is capable of.
But that he needed to find a new post-Coltrane direction is not disputable. The extremely powerful and beautiful work of the late Coltrane had (out of aesthetic necessity) once again worked itself into a corner. The very demanding flights upon which he and Sanders embarked could finally only go so far. Their cries and screams to be set free from the bondage of their horns and from this earth itself could only be conjured up so many times; and after a certain level of energy had been reached, the search had to be called off – at least for now, for this point in time. Pharoah’ s work since his days with John Coltrane has been an attempt to set this aesthetic on its head – to achieve a similar transcendence through its opposite.
That is, whereas Coltrane more or less refused to accept the conditions of this earth existence and sought constantly to break beyond them into newer levels of consciousness, Pharoah now seeks the same goal but precisely through a radical acceptance of, a radical harmonization with the forces of this life itself which apparently he hopes will propel the listener into a new and transcendent sense of the entire cosmos. Coltrane’s music was not without this element, but it was largely used in contrast to the thicker and denser textures and sounds of most of his music; and when it was successful, it worked precisely because of the contrast. Pharoah, on the other hand, has reversed the proportions. He develops long sections that work toward achieving a radical sense of calm, serenity and flow, then only briefly employs the thicker, higher energy passages, hoping that this contrast will work similarly.
The times when Pharoah’s music has failed, it has failed because it has been too serene, more serene that the universe itself actually is. The rhythmic differentiation or tension between the instruments (or in the phrasing of a single instrument) that is necessary to create emotion in the listener becomes entirely too linear. And when this happens, the music can sound very sweet and repellent (and commercial).
Listening to how Coltrane made these ideas work is informative. Listen, for example, to “To Be” (Expression, Impulse A-9120) where the entire piece is built around concepts similar to those which are now Pharoah’s principal musical concern. The “rhythm section” – and especially drummer Ali – keeps the piece from becoming monotonous by constantly exploring rhythms counter to the front line flute and piccolo. Or listen to the very powerful accompaniment Coltrane gets near the end of “Compassion” or during “Serenity” (Meditations, Impulse A-9110).
If Pharoah were to consistently combine his very advanced lyricism with a similarly advanced rhythmic sophistication, then his music would be very formidable indeed. Unfortunately, the search for essentials has tended to bog things down very much. The evening I heard this group perform, the music could at best be described as uneven. Pianist Bonner, with rare exceptions, did not get beyond three or four basic chords. And Thabo, despite some finer moments, seemed held back by Pharoah’s conceptions.
Pharoah himself seemed close to being bored with the entire proceedings. He only reluctantly approached his saxophone, more out of a sense of obligation to the audience than out of any aesthetic necessity. (During the hour-and-a-half second set, devoted largely to some rambling percussion explorations, Pharoah played his horn at most 10-15 minutes.)
And the heralded reunion of he and Leon Thomas did not particularly bring things to life. (Thomas, though always at least enthusiastic about what he does, has never lived up to the expectations of his earlier work.) Of everyone, bassist Juney Booth was the only one to leave any lasting positive impression. Maybe it was a bad night. Maybe. But, whatever the case, it showed how close Pharoah’s music is to becoming completely lost in itself and devoid of any aesthetic value whatsoever. Moreover, it was disturbing because one knows how gifted a musician and artist Pharoah Sanders is.
Henry Kuntz, 1974
selected Pharoah Sanders recordings:
Pharoah Sanders biography:
Pharoah Sanders (born October 13, 1940) is an American jazz saxophonist. Ornette Coleman once described him as “probably the best tenor player in the world.”
Sanders was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the name Farrell Sanders. He began his professional career playing tenor saxophone in Oakland, California.
Sanders moved to New York City in 1961 after playing with rhythm and blues bands. He received his nickname “Pharoah” from Sun Ra, with whom Sanders performed. He came to prominence playing with John Coltrane’s band starting in 1965, as Coltrane began adopting the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler, Ra and Cecil Taylor. Sanders first performed on Coltrane’s Ascension (recorded in June 1965), then famously on their dual-tenor recording Meditations (recorded in November 1965). After this Sanders joined Coltrane’s final quintet, usually performing very lengthy, dissonant solos. Coltrane’s later style was strongly influenced by Sanders.
Although Sanders’ voice developed differently from Coltrane, Sanders was strongly influenced by their collaboration together. Spiritual elements such as the chanting in Om would later show up in many of Sanders’ own works. Sanders would also go on to produce much free jazz, modified from Coltrane’s solo-centric conception.
In 1968 he participated in Mike Mantler and Carla Bley’s JCOA: Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association album Communications, featuring Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell and Gato Barbieri. This solo has been referenced by John Zorn and others, as the most intense and inspiring free tenor solo ever put to tape.
In the 1970s, Sanders pursued his own recordings and continued to work with the likes of Alice Coltrane on her Journey In Satchidananda album.
After several hits in the early seventies, including “The Creator has a Master Plan,” and other songs especially supported by African-American Radio, Sanders’ brand of revelatory and sometimes political free jazz became less popular. In the late seventies and eighties, Sanders sometimes explored different musical modes resembling modal jazz and hard bop. He only released a few albums during the 1980s.
In 1994 he traveled to Morocco to record with master Gnawa musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, resulting in the Bill Laswell-produced The Trance Of Seven Colors. Sanders continued to work with Laswell, Jah Wobble and others on the albums Message From Home (1996) and Save Our Children (1998). In 1999, he complained in an interview that despite his pedigree, that he had trouble finding work:
“I don’t work that much myself. I would love to work, but nobody calls me. I have to just rely on and pray that I work somewhere.
AAJ: Why do you feel you are not getting work?
Pharoah Sanders: I think that it maybe the agencies keep me from working. I have asked many, many times, but I don’t know. What is the point? I don’t have nothing personal against anybody. I feel like, maybe, it’s me. Maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s the way I express myself. I know that it may be hard for somebody to listen to me play the way I play, but I don’t know. I’m just going to keep on playing and hope that I can do better, play better, and keep learning. I can only try to live healthy and try to live life.”
In the 2000s, a slight resurgence of interest in free jazz has kept Sanders playing festivals, concerts, and releasing albums.
Sanders is known for his over-blowing, harmonic, and multi-phonic techniques on the saxophone, as well as his use of “sheets of sound.” Examples of this technique can be heard on “You’ve got to have freedom“.